“If you’re not having fun, then you will hate what you’re doing”: Ibby Njoya on the joy of set design
Aiming to have as much fun as possible, the London-based designer breaks new ground through his painterly and creative collaborations.
- Ayla Angelos
- 18 November 2021
When asked to describe his work, Ibby Njoya responds that it focuses on the “dance between colour, fashion and art.” And quite frankly, we couldn’t agree more. The London-based set designer has developed a unique point of view where outrageously colourful palettes seep into the frame and models appear to float amongst the melting, psychedelic hues. A merging art, colour and fashion, Ibby's portfolio is proof that a good set can completely alter an image.
Originally from Cameroon, Ibby was born in Paris and spent most of his adolescence in London. His father was a sculptor so, naturally, drawing and art-making became a large part of his childhood. So much so that Ibby decided to head to Bournemouth Arts University to study illustration. “However, I found that I wanted to make with my hands, but my course didn’t really encourage that,” he tells It’s Nice That. Resultantly, he took the time to collaborate across other disciplines, eventually landing on set design as his medium of choice. This was aided by the fact he worked with set designer Rhea Thierstein straight out of university, who not only taught him the tricks of the trade but opened his eyes to the discipline as a viable career option. Then, he continued assisting various others for a few years, before ending up working with set designer Thomas Bird for the following three. “While working for Thomas, I was also doing my own sets when I had some time off,” he says. “I am so lucky to have collaborated with so many talented individuals during this journey so far.”
To date, Ibby has worked across a medley of different commissions. This includes the recent cover for Dazed with Rihanna, shot by Rafael Pavarotti and styled by Ibrahim Kamara; another one for Vogue Hommes; the cover for Vogue France, photographed by Carlijn Jacobs; the freedom cover shoot by Paolo Rovers for Dazed plus many others. While working on any given project, Ibby explains how the process is very much a collaboration between the team: “Each piece I create is formed from a conversation I have with the photographer, art director or whoever we are working with and, with this conversation, I begin to paint as a response to that.” The use of the word ‘paint’ is paramount to the description of Ibby’s work, where even though what we’re observing is in the physical, real-time world, everything looks cathartically brushed – like an artist splashing his colourful concoctions onto the canvas. It takes a certain skill to achieve such illusory brilliance like this and, for Ibby, emotion plays a big part in the process. “These paintings then help show the feelings we are trying to convey in the editorial or campaign; in this way, each project is unique and tailored.”
Speaking of the shoot with Rihanna and photographer Rafael Pavarotti specifically, Ibby states how this is one of his favourites. A genre and time-bending shoot, the imagery depicts the iconic singer lavished in decorative garments – both the old and the new – as she poses in front of a plethora of different backdrops. “This story was wild because we got to hang with the band girl herself,” says Ibby. “When I told my mum I was going to be doing this story, she asked if I could take a picture with Rihanna for her. I said, ‘mum, I don’t think it works like that but I’ll see what I can do’. She then replied, ‘okay, for me, you being in the same room as her makes me happy because then I can tell people part of me was once that close to Rihanna’. So, this project is very special to me.”
In another project, Ibby worked again with Rafael for a story in British Vogue’s December issue, styled by Kate Phelan. Unique in its outrageous tones and patterns, the shoot shows maximalism at its finest. “In my conversation with Rafael, we wanted to go crazier than we have ever gone before,” says Ibby. “Our motto for this story was simple, more is more!” Paired with Kate’s styling, the story breaks new ground in terms of photographic boldness. And in another project, Ibby worked on a cover story for Vogue Italia in Paris. He describes it as "crazy”, for he could only have dreamt of working on a shoot like this – especially with Paolo Rovers who is “the grand master of photography.” A long-term fan of his work, this is a dream project for the set designer and one that allowed him to execute his ideas freely.
There’s much more to come from this astounding designer, so make sure you keep an eye out for more boundary-pushing projects that will soon be released in the world. “I hope when people look at my work, they can sense the joy coming from it,” he says. “We always aim to have as much fun with every project as possible, because if you’re not having fun, then you will hate what you're doing. Even if the project is a disaster, at least we had an amazing time.”
Ibby Njoya: British Vogue, photography by Rafael Pavarotti, styling by Kate Phelan (Copyright © Ibby Njoya, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.